Freedom Bound: The AAUP Presidential Election

Peter Wood

Antagonyms are words that wrap into themselves two opposite meanings: to “dust” can mean to remove the specks of the world from furniture or to add savory specks to a dessert.  “Oversight” covers attentive care and inattentive carelessness.  What’s “left” can be what has just gone or what remains behind. 

In reflecting on the phenomenon, Ruth Levy Guyer observes that such combinations are unstable.  One meaning is always trying to drive the other out. 

 This helps explain why the National Association of Scholars butts heads with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The antagonym is “academic freedom,” which means, alternatively, the right to bluster or the obligation not to. 

 The German word for “academic freedom” has two versions: Lehrfreiheit, the professor’s freedom to research, and Lernfreiheit, the student’s freedom to learn.

In both the 1915 Declaration of Principles and the 1940 Statement on Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the AAUP defined academic freedom as being for both students and faculty members. This freedom was meant to protect professors from being regulated in their course material, and to protect students from having their teachers’ personal or political rants presented as fact. Academic freedom, the AAUP insisted, “carries with it duties correlative to rights.”

 Among these obligations are that faculty members “should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution” (1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure).

In the AAUP’s older formulations, academic freedom was inseparable from academic responsibility, a pairing that was meant to distinguish liberty to pursue the truth from mere license to pronounce opinions. The 1915 Declaration of Principles puts it this way:

Since there are no rights without corresponding duties, the considerations heretofore set down with respect to the freedom of the academic teacher entail certain correlative obligations. The claim to freedom of teaching is made in the interest of integrity and of the progress of scientific inquiry; it is, therefore, only those who carry on their work in the temper of the scientific inquirer who may justly assert this claim…and [the teacher’s conclusions] should be set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language. The university teacher, in giving instructions upon controversial matters, while he is under no obligation to hide his own opinion under a mountain of equivocal verbiage, should, if he is fit in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators; he should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine upon the questions at issue; and he should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.

Such guiding standards preserve and fortify, rather than obstruct, academic freedom, and NAS stands by these original AAUP texts.

The AAUP, however, has in recent years been casting off a key component of their founding principles: Lernfreiheit. That rejection turns protecting professors from political interference into carte-blanche immunity from all accountability. Academic freedom becomes one-sided, allowing faculty to say whatever they wish, but leaving the integrity of the classroom defenseless.

On September 11, 2007, the AAUP published a report called “Freedom in the Classroom,” which was authored by AAUP President Cary Nelson and four others, plus a sub-committee of the Association’s Committee A. The AAUP had sensed that the freedom of professors was under attack and wrote the report in answer to those who would seek “to regulate classroom instruction” and “require professors to maintain ‘diversity’ or ‘balance’ in their teaching.” The allegation that the AAUP addressed was that professors were using the classroom for indoctrination—so, the report aimed to clear the name of wrongly-accused faculty by showing the difference between education and indoctrination.

Ten days after the report’s release, NAS published its response, in which NAS President Stephen Balch and Executive Director Peter Wood replied to fallacies in the document. (Nelson said that this was, “the only really intellectually detailed and thorough critique” that he received, out of 600 total responses. He has promised to distribute the NAS document to people on Committee A. “We may not agree with it, but it’s a serious engagement with the issues, and because of that, I welcome it.”)

The report’s gravest fault, the NAS found, was the assertion that truth is nothing more than what is found by agreement within an academic sub-discipline. The sentence reads, “It is not indoctrination for professors to expect students to comprehend ideas and apply knowledge that is accepted as true within a relevant discipline” (Freedom in the Classroom, 11 September 2007). But truth is not whatever the members of an academic discipline say it is, and as the NAS pointed out, “what is ‘accepted as true’ in chemistry, for example, has a much stronger claim on validity than what may be ‘accepted as true’ in women’s studies” (A Response to the AAUP’s Report “Freedom in the Classroom,” 21 September 2007).

De-centered, deconstructed truth necessarily accompanies the new AAUP version of academic freedom. Faculty members accountable to no one will believe and declare that truth is what they say it is. Thus it is that academic freedom becomes a cudgel to beat anyone who criticizes—a license to intellectual mobbing.

Yet the AAUP is set up as a democracy; in fact, its election is taking place now. Members are voting to elect a president, 1st and 2nd vice presidents, a secretary-treasurer, and governing Council representatives for each of AAUP’s ten districts. The ballots have been sent out and must be submitted by April 15.

Since we defend the same creed but with the original definition, the NAS is naturally attentive to the election. The candidates for presidency, Cary Nelson and Tom Guild, graciously allowed NAS Director of Communications Ashley Thorne to interview them. 

Nelson has been president of AAUP since 2006, having previously served in other AAUP offices for 15 years. In the “family photo” posted on his campaign page, he stands by his wife holding a pet Samoyed with fur as white and billowy as Nelson’s beard. A poetry professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana, some of his most recent works are Manifesto of a Tenured Radical (1997), Academic Keywords: A Devil’s Dictionary for Higher Education (1999), Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left (2001), and Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy (2004).

Known to wear Hawaiian shirts and participate in union protests (during one of which he was arrested by the NYPD), Nelson’s combination of confidence and sarcasm is his trademark. Interviewing with Ashley Thorne, he said, “In the way that the AAUP is echoing national politics, there’s a little bit of Hillary in me and a little bit of Barack Obama in me, and it’s really a matter of deciding which Republican candidate Tom emulates.”

In a debate with David Horowitz, Nelson declared, “What academic freedom in the classroom means to me is the opportunity to do as I please within a complex system of ethical, moral, disciplinary, professional, and curricular constraints - which is another way of saying none of us can really imagine doing as we actually please.”

In his interview with Mrs. Thorne, he explained how he believes academic freedom is paired with tenure: “It’s dependent on job security; if they can fire you tomorrow, you don’t really have academic freedom.” Even though for Nelson, the definition is constantly evolving (“never stable, always a work in progress”), he does hold that academic freedom means “the right of a faculty member to pursue his or her intellectual life along with his or her statements in print and classroom practices in freedom and without fear.” 

Nelson’s focus on “intellectual life” represents a vast expansion of what the AAUP’s earlier versions of academic freedom protected.  Those earlier statements focused on the faculty member’s work within a discipline, which was expected systematically to review both substantive and methodological contribution.  “Intellectual life” points to something much broader and vaguer:  the entirety of a person’s thought and opinion on all subjects and without disciplinary checks. 

And Nelson holds that this “intellectual life” should be free of “fear.” Fear of what?  Do professors today fear their intellectual lives are in jeopardy?  Nelson is convinced that the intrusions of those who would correct abuses are more harmful than the abuses themselves, which he says have been exaggerated.
Referring to an academic freedom policy that refrains from humiliating students for their viewpoints, he grants, “You know, here and there across the country, I’m sure there are people who don’t honor that kind of principle.” Nelson sees the problem as overblown, and holds that only “one out of a thousand” professors engage in such ideological pronouncements.

But with 675,624 faculty members in the United States, that’s perhaps 675 blustering teachers.  David Horowitz lists only 101 “most dangerous academics” in his book The Professors.  (Nelson is not among them.)  One way of taking Nelson’s figure is that he thinks the problem is six times larger than Horowitz says.  But we don’t think that’s what he meant. 

Nelson would rather pursue a separate issue, which he sees as the more serious underlying problem: sexual harassment on campus. “That’s where terrible damage can be done, far more than embarrassing someone in the classroom because of the views that they express.”

During Nelson’s presidency, the AAUP has faced some difficulties.   According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, membership has plummeted from 90,000 in 1971 to 43,600 in 2007.  It recently had a $250,000 budget deficit and a financial crisis after the CFO failed to produce a credible audit.  He was forced out in 2006. Nelson’s tenure has also been marked by high turnover among professional staff and organizational turmoil.  Nelson refers to all this as “our period of difficulty.”

Nelson’s challenger, Tom Guild, was nominated by petition. Posted on his website, the announcement of Guild’s qualifying for candidacy speaks of the urgent need for new leadership: “We need to break the hammerlock that the insiders have and take back our organization before huge budget deficits, slashing of important organizational functions and committee work, and declining membership make it highly improbable that the AAUP will survive and be able to celebrate its 100th birthday in 2015.”

Guild, a professor emeritus of legal studies at Oklahoma State University, has run in the previous two AAUP elections, losing to Jane Buck, then Cary Nelson. He sees the current AAUP administration as “a closed club” whose members help one another stay in office: “It’s been the same group in charge for eight years, six years under Jane Buck and two years under Cary Nelson.”

Guild notes that after years of running budget deficits, Nelson now projects a balanced budget.   Guild thinks that the timing—just before the election—is suspiciously convenient. He asked why “they didn’t do it 2006 when we had a $303 thousand budget deficit, or in 2007 when we had a $245 thousand budget deficit.” Of course they choose to do it now that it’s the middle of a political campaign.  Guild also observed that when the AAUP budget deficits became publicly known, most of the members were taken completely by surprise.

A practicing attorney, Guild is familiar with confidentiality policies, but what he sees as the AAUP’s increasing penchant for secrecy concerns him. “I think that our membership should have known about this budget deficit two years ago.”

Last fall, Guild posted on the AAUP listserv, an email list open for use to all members. His post noted that four out of five individuals on this year’s AAUP nominating committee had endorsed Nelson in the 2006 election.  Guild claimed that Nelson had, in effect, stacked the nominating system. Several days later, Nelson had the names of his supporters removed from Internet view. And on the advice of his staff, Nelson took down the listserv as well. According to Inside Higher Education, “he characterized the move as a suspension, not the elimination of the list.” The listserv has not yet been reestablished.

Tom Guild defines academic freedom as “the freedom to teach, to engage in research, to present your findings based on the scientific method, and to be a responsible academic.” He adds the qualification that irrelevant material should be left out of teaching.

Guild maintains, “On matters of politics, religion, or other matters of opinion, there should be no orthodoxy imposed in the name of free speech,” but it’s difficult to determine exactly where Guild stands when it comes to academic accountability. The main clues to his posture are his distaste for Nelson’s conduct and his desire to break up the “closed club.”

When asked about the label, Nelson did not deny that the AAUP is a closed club. He claimed instead that Guild is posing as a newcomer when he is really an inside club-member. “He’s a bit like one of those Washington insiders who claim to be from the Fiji islands. He is in fact an insider and nothing more or less than that.”

Indeed, Guild has been in AAUP leadership for over ten years as head of assembly-of-state conferences and on AAUP executive committees on the university, state, and national levels. In that sense, he is not a new face.

The NAS is not endorsing either candidate. In our view, the AAUP is a historically important organization that has known better days and taken better stands than those it has enunciated in recent years. We’d like to see the AAUP return to its founding doctrines, though we do not know whether either presidential candidate will lead that return. 

Is the concept of academic freedom “constantly evolving,” as Nelson put it?  Or is it the enduring list of basic freedoms avowed by Guild?  Neither one in their interviews emphasized students’ freedom to learn in an environment free of special pleading by their professors, though Guild appended the thought that professors should avoid “irrelevant” material.  Unfortunately, the idea of freedom from indoctrination seems to have a scant following in the today’s AAUP electorate.  Perhaps when Nelson speaks of “academic freedom” as constantly evolving, we should think of a species losing its broad adaptability, radically declining in numbers, and settling into a fiercely defended micro-niche:  the AAUP’s evolved idea of academic freedom as the Galapagos woodpecker finch of higher education, adapted to using cactus needles to extract bark-dwelling insects, but not much else. 

The AAUP’s focus these days on appealing to faculty members in the language of collective rights, hardened skepticism about free markets and American institutions, and distaste for the traditional curriculum, means that the AAUP is narrowing its own niche, not just its idea of academic freedom.  Who are we at the NAS to talk?  We are ourselves a much smaller organization and one that is often seen as occupying the inverse position in higher education’s eco-system:  for individual rights, in support of free markets and American institutions, and a stronger defender of the traditional curriculum.  The difference, we think, is that the AAUP is spiraling inward to an ever-tighter circle of doctrinaire positions, whereas NAS is reaching out to a wide variety of views and opinions that weren’t always well represented in our ranks. 

The AAUP gives the impression of coasting on its illustrious history.  NAS, by comparison, is a 20 year-old upstart, that knows it stands athwart the prevailing academic trends.  We are, to borrow Nelson’s phrase, the real Fijians, and have the outsider’s advantage of casting a fresh eye on American higher education.  We are also used to more bracing opposition than the AAUP sees today.  We are ready, to use Ben Franklin’s famous antagonym, to hang together.  As for the AAUP, increasingly it is the academic establishment.  Last week, for example, we learned that the University of Cincinnati has begun deducting $60 per month from each faculty member's compensation to be given to the AAUP, without the consent of faculty members.  Apparently that constantly evolving AAUP sense of academic freedom doesn’t include freedom for faculty members to decide on their own whether to contribute to its coffers. 

Even so, we wish the AAUP well:  a speedy recovery to its noble old self.  Fearful antagonyms notwithstanding. 

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